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ESEA Reauthorization: Four Ways a New Law Would Differ From NCLB Waivers

The No Child Left Behind Act is about to get a much-delayed facelift. The bill to replace the pretty-much-universally despised NCLB law—the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA—already sailed through the House and is expected to coast through the Senate. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it (maybe even as soon as this week).

But for the 42 states and the District of Columbia with waivers from many of the law's mandates, NCLB has already been a thing of the past for a while, at least in some important ways. So ESSA would replace not NCLB Classic, but waivers.

So what would change for waiver states? Here are some biggies:

No more federally-mandated teacher evaluation through test scores. This is huge. Teacher evaluations that took student outcomes into account were the hardest part of waivers to implement. In fact, Washington state lost its waiver because it didn't include state scores in its evaluations.

But just because states are no longer required to incorporate test scores into performance reviews doesn't mean they'll all quit cold turkey. Forty-two states plus the District of Columbia have some sort of policy on teacher evaluation, according to the National Council of Teacher Quality. And in many of the states (Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, and yes, Washington state to name a few) teacher evaluations are actually in law. So it would take a new law to undo them.

The National Education Association, which is not a fan of mandatory teacher evaluation through test scores, will be working with its affiliates to craft help their states craft "accountability systems that make sense for kids," said Donna Harris-Aiken, the director of education policy and practice at the National Education Association. And rethinking evaluations is likely to be part of the picture, she said.

No more so-called supersubgroups. Depending on how this gets regulated and implemented, this could be a big adjustment for a number of states. The waivers allowed states to combine different groups of students for accountability purposes (like English-language learners, students in special education, and racial minorities). States liked the flexibility, but the civil rights community really, really hated these supersubgroups. (They said they masked achievement gaps.) And they'd be a no-no under ESSA, or at least it appears that way from the bill language and folks familiar with the proposal say that's the intention. (Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Parnters isn't so sure they'd be outlawed.)

So if super subgroups are really gone, how many states will that affect? Maybe a lot. More than half of waiver states use supersubgroups in some way, according to this 2013 report from the Campaign for High School Equity.

And some states want to continue focusing on those larger groups in some way once ESSA kicks in. Mississippi, for instance, currently makes the growth of the bottom 25 percent a part of its accountability system. "Our principals are really appreciated that," said Carey Wright, the state superintendent. "We're definitely committed to the lowest performing students."

States would absolutely have to have a new indicator that gets at students' opportunity to learn. This is not something all, or even most states, now have under waivers. In fact, waivers gave states the flexibility to begin experimenting with these new indicators, and most of them left it on the table.

There were some takers, of course. More than a dozen states include attendance, and about half of states measure college-and-career readiness in some way, through indicators like advanced course-taking, SAT participation, and whether or not students meet ACT benchmarks.  But I couldn't find a state that breaks these indicators out by subgroup, as they would have to under ESSA.

In fact, that requirement may impact the kinds of factors states end up picking, said Daria Hall, the interim vice-president for government relations and communications at the Education Trust. The bill, for instance, lists teacher engagement as a possibility, but she's not sure how that would play out.

"How do you disaggregate teacher engagement by groups of kids?" she asked. "I'm not here to say right now that there is no possible way to make that a valid and reliable student-based indicator. But there are real questions about how to make that work."

She's hopeful that states will be thoughtful about how they use this flexibility. "We believe that student academic factors should be the primary driving factor in accountability systems. But there are other things that could enhance the system and make it stronger, not diminish it." For instance, she said, success in rigorous coursework could be a big plus.

For her part, Harris-Aiken notes that all sorts of indicators, including bullying and school climate factors, are incorporated in the department's Office for Civil Rights data collection. "These are not indicators that are made up and coming out of left field. These indicators are part of any school improvement mix," she said.

And, she said, it's time for states and districts to consider school quality factors alongside outcomes. "What we've learned over the past few years is that it doesn't make sense to look at one or the other," she said. "The outcome piece isn't coming off the table. The effort that districts and schools are making to" work on behalf of students "they'll now get credit for those efforts."

It may be that states could use socio-emotional factors for accountability under ESSA (a cadre of districts in California is experimenting with that right now).  My colleague, Evie Blad, wrote about whether those indicators are ready to be used in accountability.  (It's new territory for school ratings.)

States would not need higher education institutions to sign off on standards: Under waivers, states had to either a) use the Common Core State Standards, or b) get their institutions of higher education to sign off that their standards would get students ready for college. That's not required under ESSA. States would have to use standards that get their students ready for college without remediation. But it's not clear, at least to me right now, how that would be monitored or enforced.  That may become clearer in the regulatory process. 

Other big changes for waiver states: States would now have to incorporate English-language proficiency into their systems. (I couldn't find a state that does this now in the same way they would have to under ESSA, although some folks floated Arizona.) And they won't have to designate 10 percent of so-called "focus" schools, with big achievement gaps or other problems (although they would have to flag schools where subgroups are struggling).

One key similarity? States would have to continue to identify the bottom 5 percent of schools. But districts could be in the driver's seat on these turnarounds. States must monitor them closely however, and step in themselves if schools continue to struggle. 

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